NASA has unveiled a one-of-a-kind vehicle that can perform a few out-of-this-world maneuvers ... perhaps because the technology behind it is borrowed from concepts for astronaut rovers designed for eventual use on the moon or Mars.
The bureaucratically-named "Modular Robotic Vehicle" is described by NASA's Game Changing Development Program Office (yes, that's a real office) as "a fully electric vehicle well-suited for busy urban environments." But really, the MRV is much more than that. This is thanks largely to its adapted fly-by-wire driving system and four independent wheels called "e-corners" that allow the MRV to drift like a beauty, drive sideways and rotate with a perfect turn radius of zero degrees.
"The MRV would be ideal for daily transportation in an urban environment with a designed top speed of 70 km/h (43 mph) and range of 100 km (62 mi.) of city driving on a single charge of the battery," says Mason Markee of the Johnson Space Center, where the MRV was developed. "The size and maneuverability of MRV gives it an advantage in navigating and parking in tight quarters.”
Imagine being able to parallel park by pulling up even with an open spot, simply rotating all four wheels 90 degrees and then rolling right into the spot. Or rather than imagining it, just watch how it's done in the MRV, in the video demonstration from NASA below.
Motors capable of delivering 190 lb ft (258 Nm) of torque are located in each wheel, and controlled with a traditional-looking steering wheel and accelerator/brake pedal setup. There's also an available multi-axis joystick that can be used in more advanced driving modes.
Because the MRV has no mechanical linkages to the steering wheel, relying instead on a computer and sensor system interpreting driver input and relaying it to the wheel motors over wires, it's also a great candidate for remote or autonomous operation. The downside of the fly-by-wire approach is that failures could lead to a catastrophic loss of steering and control, so the entire architecture is redundant with back-up motors and computers. To make the vehicle feel more like a traditional car, the MRV has a force feedback system that sends vibrations and resistance to the steering wheel.
"It’s like driving on ice but having complete control," says NASA's Justin Ridley. "It’s a blast to ride in and even more fun to drive. We’ve talked about it being like an amusement park ride."
NASA states that the technologies that went into the MRV are likely to play a role in the continuing development of lunar and Mars rovers, as well as future automobile design here on Earth.